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SLANT LETTER: Writers, Let’s Make this Your Year of Epiphany
A Year to Practice Witness
It’s not just me, right? There seems to be a universally lamented moment after Christmas, after the ball drops, that signals: show’s over, folks. Pack up the tinsel for next year, stash the gifts away, clean up the confetti, and ready, set...back to the grey listlessness of winter.
But this year I’ve been making a slow discovery.
In the liturgical calendar, this quiet, wintry span of weeks from Christmas to Ash Wednesday is a far bolder invitation than it so unassumingly seems. It’s called Epiphany, meaning simply “to bring to light.”
This season summons us to watch and to witness—historically, to the spectacle of God among us and creatively, perhaps we might also find here an invitation.
Come and see, Epiphany says. Come running, in fact, senses flung wide to wonder and awe. It is a season of seeing, and perhaps one worth extending throughout the year.
I don’t know about you, but an invitation to awe sounds like a dang good prospect to me. Awe feels like a high premium, not to mention a potent power, in an age defined so often by energy funneled elsewhere: fear, outrage, cynicism, uncertainty.
So what does Epiphany have to do with writing? Everything—if you believe writing begins with seeing. If you believe that bearing witness is the first act to telling it slant. And I believe that you do.
“Bearing witness is the first act to telling it slant.” [tweet this]
This is the way the river flows: writers who pay attention earn the attention of readers [tweet this]. And we’re urgently in need of something to snap our synapses to attention, aren’t we? We crave to be broken from the staleness of the expected. We crave for our neurons to fire and crackle anew with the sudden gift of discovery.
Stories void of detail are quickly forgotten. It’s when we stop noticing the details that life gets dull. But relentless curiosity is a writer’s resistance [tweet this].
And witness keeps us asking why. We bear witness, as writers, by practicing presence, going deeper, staying curious, getting gutsy, and telling it all—so that a writer’s firsthand experience translates to the realm of the reader. We make way for our readers’ encounter by chasing after discovery and owning it, wrangling it down in sensory, specific detail.
Witnessing Dark and Light
I don’t wish to rose-color it, though. True to its name, writers practice epiphany by likewise “bringing to light” that which is hidden, meaning writers are called to witness darkness as well as the light itself [tweet this].
Maya Angelou famously said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” So perhaps the antidote is bearing witness; naming the horror that has happened. Our stories contain multitudes of light and dark alike, and we must look unblinkingly at both. Both can be named for what they are, and both require an act of courage in telling the truth.
Witnessing the Day
A few years ago, this interview and story snagged my attention in a way I couldn’t shake, and I riffed on its theme to begin posing a question to myself every morning in mindful practice: will you walk willing into the gift of this day? I’ve since updated this slightly to include: will you witness the day?
This is our essential invitation as writers:
Will you embrace the practice of paying attention?
Will you resist the gravity of distraction and dimmed acceptance of autopilot routine?
Will you keep your eyes open, as Eugene Peterson’s The Message puts it, for the God about to arrive?
Will you practice epiphany?
As we settle into 2018, I hope you will. Because contrary to popular belief, show’s not over, folks. It’s just beginning. So keep your eyes open, and write down what you see.
After sending out my last letter on engaging the reader, a number of you asked for examples. I love this question! And thank you for it—keep an eye out for more of this in future issues! So by way of example for witness and epiphany, I'll point you to Robert Farrar Capon's essay "The First Session," in which he commends—this is not not a drill—the reader to spend "an hour in the society of an onion." If that's an a radical exercise in witness, I don't know what is.
Read, savor, and see for yourself: how a blazingly ordinary object can be transfigured when we stop to take notice with our whole selves.
Until next time,
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
P.S. // Find a Good Thing Here?
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P.P.S. // A Prayer for Writers
SLANT LETTER is for the craft and soul of what you do as a writer. So for each issue, I want to focus on an element of the craft as well as a prayer for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk. I hope this will refresh you as it does for me. Read it, print it, share it, and I hope you find some encouragement here.